“Anything We Want” is probably the dark horse of Fiona Apple’s newest album, The Idler Wheel (for short): arguably the best song on the album, but the one least interested of convincing you that it is. It is an exemplar of Fiona Apple’s form: the unobvious percussion choices (what sounds like tin cans and cutlery), the alliterations, the pushy rhyming (“rivulets” with “riveted”). It’s also a classic example of who Fiona Apple is post-Tidal: this is no single, in the traditional sense. It is so quiet. The tempo is slow. The vocal melody is ridiculously simple: no big reaches, no jumping around the scale, no affectations. It’s the antithesis of “Hot Knife,” which may be the boldest of Apple’s songs, the most outgoing, the most “unlike” her.
With the tempo and that playful percussion and Apple’s calm demeanor as she opens “Anything We Want,” you would imagine that this is just a nice song about a brand new love affair. And it certainly is: Apple is nervous but happy. She describes herself as holding a fan, but she’s not hiding behind it, instead it’s “folded up and grazing my forehead.” But she is hiding behind words, as usual, behind complexities: instead of saying she is burning up, she says her cheeks “were reflecting the longest wavelength” (i.e. red). Everything is good, there’s so much to look forward to, as long as she keeps her guard up a little: “I kept touching my neck / to guide your hand to where I wanted you to kiss me / when we found some time alone.” This looks like a scene from The Age of Innocence — so far.
More words-as-armor before we get to the chorus: instead of straight-up saying that her past is getting in the way of intimacy with this “you,” she says, “My scars were / reflecting the mist in your headlights.” The person is clearly drawn to her regardless. By describing herself as a “neon zebra” she tries to playfully trivialize whatever is standing between them. The immediate problem, she decides, is not her, or her baggage, or his baggage, but the people around them: “And the rivulets / had you riveted / to the places that I wanted you to kiss me / when we find some time alone.”
But by the second verse there is pain. She is tired: her voice is vibrating under some strain as she sings:
Let’s pretend we’re eight years old playing hooky
I’ll draw on the wall and you can play UFC rookie
Then we’ll grow up, take our clothes off
And you’ll remind me that I wanted you to kiss me
When we find some time alone
What changed? We’ve gone from a fire-lit parlor room, as it were, to Apple feeling like a wild animal stuck in a human world. Now we’re hanging out in a clubhouse with the eight-year-old singer and her addressee as the singer consoles herself, steels her nerves about this relationship, by imagining that she and the guy have known each other forever. It’s a great fantasy. She snaps her fingers and they’re back in the present: now everything can be perfect, now they can get past getting to know each other to having known each other.
It’s nice to imagine this is the same guy in “Hot Knife” — the hot knife, the guy who “excites me,” the guy who — and what an image — “makes my heart a cinemascope screen showing a dancing bird of paradise.” “Anything We Want” is earlier on in that relationship, maybe, when Apple is still trying to exercise self-control, to be cool, while inside she imagines how this guy will soon be frightened or put off by her past, will recede into oblivion as his physical longing is gradually replaced with his intellectual closeness to her.
The song changes scenes a remarkable number of times. Before this childhood hooky fantasy, she sings, “We started out sipping the water / now we try to swallow the wave,” probably a metaphor for the limelight, with “those bastards” (“And we try not to let those bastards get us down”) standing for the media, or, for that matter, anyone who can recognize the singer in public. “When the guff comes” — the media, again — “we get brave,” she assures him. Or at least that’s the hope. The chorus’s idea, that if they can just be alone, they can “do anything we want,” is the final line, underscored as before with four simple chords that seem to negate any of the (considerable) worries she had in the verses. Perhaps all those worries are just a negligible distraction, little pests that she’s more capable of swatting away than she realizes.